3 Defender

I dreamed of two smiling men.

One, early twenties like me, had dark hair, striking blue eyes that were soft, but the set of his strong jaw was fierce. And his hands were so large and strong that they engulfed mine. Yet, for all his intimidating size and strength, I didn't feel afraid. He had made me feel safe. He bowed to me, with his hand clasped to his heart,

The other, a handful of years older than the first, was equally handsome, though despite his youth, his hair was strangely white. And his eyes… his eyes were dark and piercing.

Where the first man had the bulk and strength of a beast, the second reminded me of a snake—sharp eyed and intelligent, capable and deadly. As if his weapons were hidden, but his strength no less apparent for it. He was far more guarded, yet somehow far more confident. As if he knew himself, and liked what he knew.

When he smiled, my stomach fluttered. He offered me his hand, pleading with his eyes for me to take it.

Both men waited for me to make my choice. Both yearned to have me as their own. And each was afraid of the other.

I'd heard neither of them speak, yet I would have sworn if I heard their voices I'd know them.

But that was the quality of dreams. You knew things no one had told you. And strange elements made sense.

Like the God of the Universe sitting on my couch. Or, a thrillingly handsome man wanting to—

"Up! Up, up, up, Zara! Get up! There's no time to lay abed this morning. The King's pleasure will not wait, even for a pretty bedbug who reads by the candle into the wee hours. Come along my girl, get up!"

The unknown voice shot adrenaline through my veins. I blinked, then squinted against the bright morning light that seemed to come from a window far larger than my small apartment's tall but narrow window in the living area.

"Zara, get up! I told you not to read late last night for this very reason! Our King is not a patient man! Please! We have less than two hours!"

A strong hand landed on the blankets over my leg, shaking my knee. I blinked, then sat bolt upright, gaping at a small, fat, middle-aged woman with copper-colored hair streaked with white. She was bent over the bed, one hand on my leg, the other reaching towards me. And she was beaming. But she hesitated when she saw my aghast expression.

"What is it, Zara? Oh, dear one, don't take my words to heart. We will have you ready. I was only teasing. Your Abigail won't let you be late for this incredible day. It's alright!" she said with the most maternal smile I had ever seen. "Sweetheart, were you dreaming? You are safe now. Home—for now. The King won't—"

"Home?" I yelped, finally looking past her to the incredible but impossible chamber around us. Stone walls. Slate floor. Arched stone-worked windows with sills so deep and wide I could lay in one without curling up. Massive, ancient furniture. And this bed... a sea of down and fur. "This isn't home!"

Abigail—at least, I thought she'd been referring to herself—chuckled and patted my shoulder. "Och, the Sandman did a real turn in your dreams last night, didn't he?" She said, clucking like a mother hen as she peeled the blankets away from me. "Of course this isn't your childhood home, dear. But the Select must reside with the King in the Palace, and so you're here until he decides otherwise. Don't tell me you've had a change of heart? I know it's belly-thrilling, but—"

"King?!" I asked incredulously.

"Come now, Zara," the woman said, an expression of patient disapproval on her ruddy features. "Don't play games. I know the dreamworld can leave us all a touch befuddled. But please, I need you to move towards the bath." She physically lifted my ankles and turned my legs so they fell to the bedside, then urged me to stand, gesturing towards a massive, copper bathtub placed over a fur rug in front of a fireplace so huge I could have walked into it without ducking... if there weren't flames crackling merrily in the hearth.

For a moment I was mesmerized and let myself be urged off the bed, towards the bath.

But then Abigail started talking again.

"That's it, that's it. We want to be out of the water, dried and dressed before your lovely Knight Defender arrives."

There was a hint of a curious tone in her voice, as if she wanted to ask me something. But I stopped walking and turned to look at her.

Knight Defender? My Knight Defender?

What the hell was she talking about?

The words to ask where I was, who this woman was, and how she'd gotten me out of my apartment, died on my tongue.

I was wracked with conflicting urges—half of me wanting to scream because this stranger had appeared from nowhere. The other half wanting to sink into those thick arms and be hugged and held until the weight in my stomach finally disappeared. And so I just stared and made strangled noises.

For the first time, Abigail looked alarmed. She put a small but calloused hand to my forehead, frowning.

"Zara, dear, are you unwell? Is the fever upon you? Should I prepare herbs? You cannot snub the King and miss the Selection!" she whispered, cutting a look over my shoulder as if she was expecting someone else to overhear.

I opened my mouth, about to make it clear to her that she was the danger here, when some of her words sank in.

You can't snub the King and miss the Selection.

The Selection.

Nothing else I had seen made sense. But those words echoed in my head, resonating. They were familiar. From where though?

Then it dawned on me.

"The Rite in which the King selects his bride," I breathed.

"Yes, of course," Abigail said with a grin. "Did you think there was another King? Or another Rite? Come, into the bath."

Somehow she had ushered me to the side of the tub. She squatted, grasping the hem of the long, cotton gown I'd apparently been sleeping in, and lifted it until I was forced to raise my arms for her to pull it over my head.

Normally, if a strange, middle-aged woman had invaded my life, then stripped me naked, I might have had some colorful words for her. But as Abigail took my hand and urged me to step into the steaming water, it all clicked into place.

The Selection was the name of a tradition in the fantasy world of the book I'd been reading. In it, the King selected a number of women, then had them entertain him and compete for his attention, weeding them out one by one until he chose the one he wanted to marry.

As Abigail ignored my vacant look and raised my arm, plunging a cloth into the hot water, then scrubbing my armpit with the same intensity a Priest undertook an exorcism, it all began to make sense.

Of course.

Of course!

"Do you have a joke to share?" Abigail asked good-naturedly as I spluttered and giggled, half from being ticklish, and half because it was all quite hysterical.

"It's just a dream," I gasped, bracing against her grip on my other wrist and giggling through the scrubbing of that armpit that tickled even more. "It's all just a dream!"

I'd woken and not wanted to wake, so my body was helping me for once.

I didn't want to think about the thick weight of dread that coated my insides. So my mind had conjured an alternative.

I didn't want to think about the sick death of my relationship, so I was dreaming that I was a part of the story in my favorite book.

And in this dream, apparently I was in the running to be selected by the King to be his Queen.

I cackled as I let myself sit back in the bath.

Princess, indeed.

It wasn't uncommon for me to be aware that I was dreaming. But this was the most... physical I'd ever felt a dream. I wondered if I would also find—

"My apologies, my Lady, but this is an emergen—HOLY SHIT I'M SORRY!"

I squawked and yanked my arm from Abigail's grip to cover my breasts as a man shoved into the room, then when he saw me, whirled to put his back to me, covering his eyes.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" he called miserably. "I didn't know—"

"Oh hush, everyone makes mistakes," Abigail sighed as she got to her feet and turned and faced the man. "Just give us a moment to get her dried and dressed. You can speak to her whilst I do her hair—"

"You don't understand, Abby. The first test has begun. The King has called for the women! We have to get her to the Royal Audience Chamber in the next ten minutes!"

Abigail made a strange noise, then grabbed me and pulled me out of the bath. I staggered on the fur, but she was already on her knees, drying my legs, and muttering to herself.

"Should have known... should have known. Of course he wouldn't give warning. It's a test!"

The guy who'd run into the room still had his back to us and both hands clapped over his eyes. But he was trembling with tension. I admired the form of him—thick, broad shoulders and biceps hugged tightly by a uniform jacket because he had his hands raised to keep his eyes covered. His waist was trim, but his chest and thighs…

My brain was really good at this, I thought with another snort of laughter.

"There's no time. Get her dressed, then we must leave!"

Abigail flew into action, throwing the towel aside, then rushing to a small stand alongside a tall, mirrored makeup desk with a beautiful stool large enough for two ample bottoms like mine.

"Quickly! Quickly, Zara! Let's put on the gown. If there's time I will twist up your hair as well, but—"

"There is no time!" The man hissed.

But I was already half-buried under the weighty gown she was throwing over my head, then she turned me by my shoulders so my back was to her and she could do up the dozen tiny buttons down my spine.

I barely had time to smooth my hands down the front of the beautiful, luxurious gown with intricate embroidery covering the entire bodice before she yanked me aside and practically shoved me toward the man, who finally turned to greet me.

I stopped dead, my jaw on the floor.

It was the man from my first dream. The young, muscular man, though now his hair was just long enough to be pulled back into a short tail.

I loved long hair on a guy.

He scanned me from toe to head, his lips pressing thin in disapproval when he got to my hair, but he just shook his head, took my elbow, and hustled me out of the room.

"Pray!" he called over his shoulder towards Abigail as we practically ran from the room.

"I already am!" she called back, her voice echoing in the wide, stone corridor we briskly walked down.

His grip on my forearm tightened as we walked. He kept looking around as if he expected to see someone. But the corridors were empty. He was muttering to himself, but I couldn't quite catch the words. If it hadn't been a dream, I would have yanked my arm from his grip and told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to explain himself, and stop touching me. But did it matter? He was hot, and it was a dream.

Why not let myself be the damsel in distress?

It sounded like this King dude was a little fierce. Nothing like a touch of danger to get the story rolling, right?

So, I let Hottie McKnighterson drag me along. Then we turned a corner into another wide hall, this one lined with curtained alcoves on either side, each with a statue or piece of fine furniture inside.

Hurrying towards the closest one and drawing me with him, the man tugged at the gold cord holding the curtain back, then as it fell in heavy waves to cover half the opening, pulled me behind it.


The words died in my throat when he took one look over his shoulder with eyes sharp like a wolf's, pressed me into the shadowed corner of the alcove, then kissed me.


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